Radio stations fill the air with holiday music as something warm and magical begins to stir in our hearts. Shoppers are bustling, lights are twinkling, and the Promenade is aglow with holiday decorations. Suddenly, it’s that moment children of all ages have waited for all year: The latest court ruling on the Nativity scenes in Palisades Park. Ah, the comfort and joy of long-standing holiday traditions in Santa Monica.
Excuse any cynical tone in the opening paragraph, but this writer is a little stunned to discover that the struggle over Nativity representations in a public park in our city is still alive and doing well this holiday season. The “president” of Syria had so far killed 40,000 of his own people and is now reportedly considering the use of deadly gas to improve his harvest. Santa Monica residents of faith are standing up to a world roiling with injustice and inhumanity by carping about plaster mannequins in a public park.
Yes, sorry, but it is carping. Let’s cut to the single most annoying and sadly recurring dimension of the “issue” that has actually never been an issue: The idea that freedom of speech, censorship, and the 1st Amendment are somehow tied up in the non-issue of the Nativity scenes being displayed in Palisades Park.
There is no absolute “right” allowing art installations, erection of small buildings, small buildings wrapped in cyclone fencing and 24 hour unsupervised displays in a public space, which in this case is a park. Even the rudest participants in the Occupy Wall Street movement understood there was a process of permits and parameters of time involved. The Occupy people are a generally well-informed group that would never be so naïve as to think that something allowed for a period of time could somehow magically go on forever and that they could thrive as squatters.
So that gets us to the fact that the presence of the Nativity scenes in the park has a history that of late has been translated into being “a tradition.” I can’t speak to the record of anyone protesting the Palisades Park Nativity installation from 1953 up until the last few years of acrimony, but in one way or another all of us can speak to the general notion of “tradition.” Older African Americans can speak to the “traditions” of discrimination prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Women will recall “traditional roles for women” before the 1970’s and gays can speak to traditions of bullying and homophobia – let’s move on.
Of course I understand that what the supporters mean is that in some warm and cozy way the Nativity scenes should remain on display in a public space simply because they have been left alone for such a long time. And I think they further mean to imply that the ‘traditional’ presence of the Nativity scenes in a public park presents no threat or even offense. Okay, let’s have a look at that.
Is there a threat? If the public Palisades Park can be utilized for displays telling only the story of one religious faith during the holiday season of that faith, then there’s no reason that “right” wouldn’t be extended to any other organization representing a philosophy or collection of thought. How would the supporters of the Nativity scenes feel regarding Pro Choice groups declaring a Celebrate Pro Choice Day and insisting that they can install in the public park three-dimensional depictions of historical elements relevant to their beliefs? Never mind the bad beards and wigs on the dated Nativity scenes; we’d be into new “representation” territory with that one. In this way, I’m saying there is a threat; a threat to simple good taste and restraint on the part of a city and its residents.
Is a Nativity representation of any kind “offensive” displayed in a public area? Baby boomers grew up watching dozens of holiday Christmas specials and in that time those specials would generally treat various representations of Christmas as equals. The Little Drummer Boy might have drummed at the cradle-side of Christ, but he wasn’t viewed as any more powerful an image than Santa or Rudolph the Red-Nosed reindeer. However, right-wing Christians have made enough of an impact on American politics that symbols of their faith can no longer be treated in such a cavalier manner by media or in this case city government. Sorry, Christians, but your extremist brethren brought this sociological change on themselves.
So yes, there is offense in any implication that one well-defined faith somehow guides the United States of America more than another. Such an implication would be the use of public areas for the display of representations from one particular faith. Since I can’t imagine how you’d administrate some system of equal representation in the park for every faith on the planet, we’re not able to yield to Christians only; not at Christmas or any other time of the year.
It appears at the time of this writing that the Nativity tableaus will live at a location in the 2700 block of Ocean Park Boulevard, on private property. We salute the determination of all involved, which now may include residents in that new location who are less than delighted to have the installation in their neighborhood. Don’t feel bad if you become Grinch-y and decide to somehow resist having the Nativity scenes right in your face. After all, fighting them is a Santa Monica Christmas Tradition.